Shalmai Jones is a research technician at the Brains for Dementia Research brain bank, King’s College London.
What led you to working in the brain bank?
I have always liked science, and while studying psychology in college my interest in neuroscience was sparked by the story of Phineas Gage. He was a railroad worker in the 1800s who survived a severe brain injury when an iron rod entered his head through his cheek and exited through the top of his skull. He recovered physically but his personality was drastically altered.
I wanted to learn more about the brain and how brain injury, stress and disease can influence its function and our behaviour. I qualified as a biomedical scientist and jumped at the opportunity to take the job at the brain bank, where I could contribute my skills for processing and examining donated brain tissue.
What is a typical day like for you at the brain bank?
When a brain is donated to the Brains for Dementia Research brain bank, it is divided in two from front to back. Both sides are divided into blocks of brain regions that are affected by different dementia-related diseases. One side is quickly frozen to -80˚C. The other side is preserved in chemicals and embedded in wax.
One aspect of my work involves these wax blocks of brain samples. I use a specialised machine to cut very thin slices of the wax-embedded tissue and mount these onto microscope slides. After this, I use special dyes and markers to highlight structures, brain cells and toxic proteins that have built up in that person’s brain.
The second aspect of my work involves preparing brain samples for researchers who have applied to Brains for Dementia Research to receive tissues from us. We can send them either frozen tissue samples or wax tissue on glass slides, depending on the type of research that they want to do.
Do you think people have misconceptions about what brain banking is like?
Yes – a lot of people imagine it is very different from how we actually work. Brain donation and banking is a very careful and organised process. We always aim to work with the families of donors in the most compassionate way.
There are clear protocols and procedures set in place from the time of death of the donor to when their tissue is used for research.
What is your favourite thing about working for Brains for Dementia Research in the brain bank?
My favourite thing is being part of the brain banking network that we are building across the UK, which is opening up conversations about brain donation for research.
At our recent public and patient involvement event, I had the chance to speak to some of our current donors and their study partners (person close to them who will support the brain donation). They were so interested in the science and techniques behind getting a diagnosis and about how their brains will help research after they die.
I feel encouraged to always work to the highest quality I can, because the person whose tissue I am working with is someone’s parent, partner or sibling.
Also, the brain tissue we provide researchers with may one day be used to make a crucial discovery about the causes of dementia and how we can cure it.
Please note, Brains for Dementia Research is not currently receiving brain donations.
Information for dementia researchers
Researchers can find out how to apply to use Brains for Dementia Research tissue and data in their research.